Koh Phangan

3 April – 12 May

When we left Bali, I felt like the bottom had fallen out from my world. The soft cloud of devotion that had carried me from India through Bali was gone, and a sharp new materialistic reality enveloped us.

We were back in Thailand, on our way to Koh Phangan (Koh means island). Before boarding the 9am boat, many passengers were either smoking, drinking beer, or both as they waited. Once on board, we hunkered down to shut everything out with a nap, but a huge screen, with too much glare to see clearly, started playing Iron Man 3 with the volume turned all the way up on a sound system that was so bad the words were incomprehensible. We acutely felt the less savory side of Thailand and the price they had paid in becoming so friendly to Western tourists: the acquisition of a cynical and materialistic edge.

Overall, I knew I had nothing to complain about; I was after all only moving from one tropical island to another. And, what is also true is that this transition was unexpectedly draining and challenging.

When we finally arrived on Koh Phangan, I was a wreck. The island seemed dry and inhospitable. The buildings and grounds were the usual SE Asian jumble of old and new, messes and trash interspersed with only hints of attention to detail and lacked the lush beauty to which I had grown accustomed. I felt frazzled by the puckered and dusty surroundings. Those first few days, people would say Koh Phangan was the most beautiful place they had ever seen, and I would just blink, speechless, thinking “have you been to Bali?”

I also felt that I was done with subjecting myself to classes and retreats. From gestalt at Esalen to permaculture at Panya, meditation in Myanmar, Bhakti yoga in India, and kundalini in Bali, I had stretched myself in enough directions. I was tired of being the student. I wanted to lead, and I knew I was ready. In Bali, I felt I had reconnected with what my heart loves and what my talents are. I was ready to deepen into my practices of dance and vinyasa and capitalize on my proficiency for foreign languages instead of starting yet again another new thing from square one. I didn’t need or want to be pushed to open any more.

Or so I thought.

kali, destroyer of egos, dances life into shiva

Koh Phangan is known as the party island. In addition to the infamous full moon party, there’s now half moon, jungle, waterfall, pool and boat parties. All-night, alcohol (plus) infused ragers. During our time on the island, we went to zero of these parties and consumed only one beer and two glasses of wine over six weeks.

We had come for something else entirely: the course in tantra at Agama, an integral yoga school.

Two dear friends from home who had spent a lot of time at the school met us when we arrived and took us to our house (our own house!) that we had rented for a month. After traveling for so long, we were excited to have our own kitchen (finally!), a huge tub, a view of the ocean from the hammock on our front porch, and A/C (April and May in SE Asia are brutally hot). They helped us rent a scooter, showed us where the health food store was, and took us to the best swimming spot for a sunset swim together, followed by dinner on the beach.

Yeah, life was good.

Then, class started. Tantra is a touchy subject, titillating and much-misunderstood. We weren’t sure what to expect. We weren’t sure what we wanted to expect. I was aware of tantra as an obscure branch of yoga (or something) having to do with sex, Shiva and Shakti, but that was about it. Jacob knew tantra as a form of esoteric Buddhism taught by Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Naropa, and from his years in the Diamond Approach. Though very different paths, each teaches embracing conventional reality, rather than turning away from it, and using the muck of our personalities to wake up to our essential nature of unbounded love and awareness. This was also the message at Agama.

It turns out that the experiences we had been having on this trip had somehow perfectly prepared us for this class. Unknowingly and unplanned, Jessica’s trip in particular (getting, well, exposed to Shiva lingams in India, and working with kundalini in Bali) had been building up to tantra.

When love beckons to you, follow her,
Though her ways are hard and steep.
And when her wings enfold you yield to her,
Though the sword hidden among her pinions may wound you.
And when she speaks to you believe in her,
Though her voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden. 

For even as love crowns you so shall she crucify you. Even as she is for your growth so is she for your pruning.
Even as she ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall she descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. 

From Kahlil Gibran, On Love




What we got at Agama were charismatic and provocative teachers, life-changing course material, friendly and engaged fellow students, and a relaxed yet focused class atmosphere in beautiful surroundings. We found ourselves immersed in the community life at Agama and suddenly six weeks seemed far too short a time to spend there (we had quickly extended our one month stay to six weeks).

During the course, we were taught the metaphysics of tantra, which mostly have to do with the interplay of emptiness and form, consciousness and energy, Shiva and Shakti. We were also taught how to channel sexual energy, through asana practice and mental concentration, toward transpersonal states. We appreciated the unique opportunity to be in an educational environment where sex was not considered shameful – quite the opposite, in fact: in tantra, it’s an explicit tool of the spiritual path. We took part in beautiful rituals of transfiguration, eye-gazing with all our classmates as we practiced seeing through the masks of our personalities into our essential nature. Outside of class, a cacao ceremony on the beach was organized – our second in two months!

Ultimately, it was all about love. Not the love the ego knows – possessive, or, at best, romantic – but true, unconditional love. Most of what passes for love is conditional and security-seeking, and could be called an implicit business contract: as long as you meet my needs, I’ll meet yours in return. This what most of us are generally working with to some degree, and we know it lacks satisfaction. This is ego-gratifying love, and nothing coming from ego will ever fulfill the heart’s longing. In the course, we examined ego-slaying paradigms of relationship where there is non-possessiveness without indifference. The love Kahlil Gibran writes about:

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart. 
      But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure, 
      Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor, 
      Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears. 
      Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. 
      Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; For love is sufficient unto love. When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, I am in the heart of God.” 

Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if your love must have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.

We thank the wise teachers of the course, Justine and Muktananda, for sharing their passion and dedication to this path with us and for their endearing teaching style. We were lucky to also have a little family of friends at Agama. Many thanks to Todd and Vidya, for encouraging us to come to Agama and being such generous, supportive friends during our journey there. We loved having our travel buddies Matt and Lisah in the class, too, with whom we’ve shared so much of this entire journey. May we all continue to walk the path with grace.

Justine & Muktananda